5 Things You Must Consider Before Moving Forward With A Separation

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Couple working on marriage while separated

When you become painfully aware both of you are unhappy, when you no longer know what to do about your relationship problems, this is how most couples end up considering a separation.

The love and connection between them appears to be dead. They can't stop the fighting, so a marriage separation feels like the only way to save themselves as individuals.

But wait, isn't a separation agreement just the first step towards divorce?

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Why people choose separation over an immediate divorce 

Separation is a pause in the action, and the time away needs to be treated with respect because the goal is a happy marriage.

For many people the pain becomes too great, and the couple grows desperate to feel better. They absolutely need to get away or take a break from the daily repetition of a dysfunctional dynamic.

In her work, Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, refers to the Demon Dances couples do — the dialogues couples have over and over that lead nowhere but more pain, marriage problems, and disillusionment.

When a couple gets locked in their own version of Demon Dancing, they may think about separation as a means to stop the pain without going through an actual breakup.

A separation doesn't need to be the first step to divorce. Separated couples who structure their separations can quiet the dancing demons while they make the space to learn new tools and healthier ways of interacting.

You will most likely need the guidance and marriage advice of a Relationship Counselor or Coach to help you to mediate the various factors you need to consider.

Here are five things you need to know before you move forward with a separation.

1. Know your goals

Are you both fully committed to have your separation be a "time-out" on the difficulties you're experiencing and not a "time-out" on the marriage?

There should be an agreement that neither of you can run off and file for divorce without a full discussion before the end of the agreed upon separation. That goes for threatening divorce, as well.

Your separation is a pause in the action and should be treated with respect. The shared goal is to work back toward a happy marriage.

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2. Be aware of the practical implications.

A separation requires some careful negotiation to figure out who will stay in the home, and who will move out.

If there are children, you'll need to talk to them and make a plan for custody and/or visitation during the separation. Who will take which car? Who will use which credit cards? How will you fund two households? These are only a few of the questions you will need to consider, discuss, and negotiate.

You will also have to compromise and agree to stay faithful and not date others during the separation if you want to keep a healthy relationship going.

3. Discuss what to tell friends and family.

You will need to develop a script for how to handle the questions from your loved ones. The general rule is to tell them what they need to know but no more.

Often, couples make the mistake of over-sharing with their loved ones and inadvertently creating animosity for their relationship. This makes it tough when the two of you have healed and your family still hates your spouse!

Try something along the lines of, "We're separating to rebuild. We're still fully committed to our marriage and will be working hard with a therapist. We hope to have a stronger, happier relationship soon."

4. Agree on how much will you interact

At the very least, couples will need to see each other in regular therapy appointments. At first, this might be the safest way to see one another. You might also agree to weekly dates, or spending time together with your children. You'll want to decide how often to check with each other by phone, email or text.

Make a plan that honors both of your needs for separation and connection. It's likely you are probably used to some chaos in the relationship, but now is a good time to slow down and breathe.

If you're the one who typically pursues your partner, this is a good time for you to pursue other interests and practice self-care.

5. Wait until you're both emotionally safe to move back in together

This, of course, is a very critical step. Each of you should be able to state what you are looking for to feel emotionally safe enough to live together again. You should be able to see clear progress in your marital therapy, which includes an ability to communicate about important or potentially stressful topics.

You'll want to feel you've resolved the conflict and forgiven the hurt which led to the separation. You will also want a clear plan about how to handle relationship "hot buttons" before they escalate to deal-breaking problems.

I have worked and continue to work with many couples who have taken a break from their marital woes by separating. Those who have consciously structured the boundaries of their time apart, have emerged with healthier, stronger relationships.

It may not be right for everyone, but handled well, a separation could just save your marriage.

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Mary Kay Cocharo is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in West Los Angeles, California.

This article was originally published at Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT. Reprinted with permission from the author.